WaterWalla: Making clean water a profitable enterprise for slum dwellers

Posted By: Hilary Fischer-Groban|Dated: February 14, 2012

“This [water] crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.” – United Nations Human Development Report, 2006

A necessity for human life, water is also the world’s most common transmitter of disease. Prevalent, and usually preventable, water-borne diseases result in a staggering 3.5 million deaths per year, and has devastating economic affects through lost productivity and medical expenses.[1],[2]

These effects are often most severely felt in slums, where immense over-crowding, severely compromised sanitation systems and a lack of legal regulations surrounding line access means that inexpensive, clean water is almost non-existent. The number of slum dwellers – now at around 1 billion – is expected to double by 2030. Around the world, not only do slum dwellers typically pay more for their water than high-income residents of the same city, they even pay more than people in developed countries.[3]

Given a lack of infrastructural backing, point-of-use (POU) technologies, in which water is purified immediately before use, could be an inexpensive but invaluable method of individual decontamination. However, up until now, POU products have been slow to enter to slum markets because many companies fear high entry costs, as well as social and political stigmas.

One organization, WaterWalla, is helping to bridge this gap between the technology, education, and profitability of clean water in the Dharavi slum of Mumbai.  Founded in August 2010 by a group of five American college students from the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University, WaterWalla establishes micro-businesses that sell and distribute POU technologies from reliable companies such as Bajaj, Eureka Forbes, and TATA, through entrepreneurs in independently-owned franchises. The local franchise-based model means that water purification can become a sustainable livelihood for entrepreneurs as well as improve standards of living.

Neil Parikh, who co-founded WaterWalla as a junior at Brown University, and now serves as an advisor, said that, “As a pre-medical student, I wanted to apply what I was learning in class to a meaningful, tangible problem.  As I talked with my classmates and friends, we decided that water was the most important pillar of the pyramid and one that we could impact with scale as students.” After he graduated, Anshu Vaish (Brown ’11.5) & Soaib Grewal (RISH ’11) took over to lead the US & India teams respectively.

Neil continued, “The initial research we did into the condition of slum water sanitation in Dharavi was shocking.  33% of families had significant E. coli contamination. We wanted to design a solution through which these residents not only got the best technology, but also became empowered to advocate to their communities about the benefits of clean water.”

WaterWalla equips interested local entrepreneurs to run their own WaterWalla shops, giving them a renovated storefront, marketing assistance, and access to technology. By July 2012, WaterWalla will have an expected 10 shops throughout Dharavi.

Building the market for these shops through increased awareness is an integral component of WaterWalla. WaterWalla trains local women’s groups and networks as a vehicle for not just education, but also marketing, and door-to-door sales. Beyond solely describing its health benefits, WaterWalla also raises awareness about the effects of clean water on slum dwellers’ personal finances and other, more tangible benefits, like decreases in medical expenses, increases in productivity, and higher school attendance rates.

WaterWalla not only harnesses the unique entrepreneurial spirit of Dharavi to improve its quality of life; it also empowers the community to make this change for themselves. WaterWalla’s first shop-owner, JT, used to run an ayurvedic medicine business, but from the beginning, says Parikh, “It was clear that WaterWalla for him wasn’t about the money, it was about finding ways to fill a need in his own community. And that’s what we’re hoping to find in every community we work in.”

For more information, please visit http://www.waterwalla.org.

[1]World Health Organization. 2008. Safer Water, Better Health: Costs, benefits, and

sustainability of interventions to protect and promote health.

[2]Department for International Development Sanitation Reference Group. 2008.

[3]UNHDR 2006

About the Author

Hilary Fischer-Groban is a freelance writer based in Mumbai, with a background in corporate social responsibility.  She has been studying India since she first visited in 2004. Originally from Boston, she previously worked at ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth and the Harvard Business Review Press.  Hilary graduated from Brown University with a degree in South Asian Studies and made the move to Mumbai in 2010.  She enjoys exploring opportunities to apply top of the pyramid, process-driven efficacy to bottom of the pyramid issues.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group. 

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  • Mury

    Great article, Hilary!

    • Hilary

      Thanks, Mury!

  • Raj

    Nice job!  Want to use this example as a part of a case study in my sanitation class next term.

  • Jalmitra

    We need water for our survival- drinking & sanitation . First we pollute it then purify it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jalmitra Vijay Kedia

    ‘ WaterWalla ‘ : you provide WATER PURITY ,

    ‘ Varshajal ‘ : we provide WATER SECURITY  .

  • sundara raman

    india is powerful in irrigation of water dams, rivers.  But still lakes like ganga , yamuna river  is not yet taken any  water action plan. why i am telling because we are communicable disease are more in india. Still our govt is not taken any water action plan. Let our cities and villages grow on agricultures should survive is based on water. thanks msg from sunder raman  9449350008.

  • Ramakria

    well done
     guys proud of your efforts ,give water to all slum kids ,and make them healthy
    yes Typhoid,malaria ,dysyntry etc are all water borne diseases .This is best example to make a difference
    I would be delighted if SLUMS are replaced with  affordable Housing (Bamboo etc ?) ,at the same time such facilities are provided ,so that the standard of living improves

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